June 9, 2020

Oakland Police Commissionmoney, gas, rubber, and “fuck”

I attended the remote meeting of Oakland’s police commission today, Monday, June 8, 2020. The meeting lasted four hours and twenty two minutes. Most time was taken up with community comments of two minutes, one minute, and eventually just forty five seconds each, from residents who’d signed in and queued up.

To paint the major impressions:

I am by no means new to the Oakland Police Department’s terrible conduct or reputation. But I am new to the murky depths of its union contracts, force policies, federal oversight agreement, and accountability structures. I tuned in to listen, and to develop context, not to speak. But on the basis of all the information I’ve been gorging on since last week, my takeaways were grim.

First and foremost, it is all too easy to read this evening’s event as a kind of institutionally glorified paper bag session into which citizens of Oakland were invited to bellow their pain. The chair in particular was quick to jump on the refrain to prohibit the use of tear gas, rubber bullets, and flashbang grenades. But at least while I was paying attention, no admission was made of the commission’s very limited power to address any of the larger issues raised by repeated, specific public comments. In short, the people demanding reform weren’t told that the commission they were venting at wasn’t a commission set up to do much if anything of what they asked.

Under 604(b)(4) of Oakland’s city charter, the police commission can propose changes to police policy, like its use of force policy. But those proposals only go to the city council, which can do what it wants with them. There is a rule that puts the changes in place if the council fails to act at all. But only after one hundred and twenty days. Hardly quick.

Similarly, nothing at all was said of the commission’s leverage over California Highway Patrol, which is reported to have fired forty assault rifle rounds in East Oakland on Saturday, killing Erik Salgado, 22, and wounding his pregnant girlfriend. Best I can tell, that leverage is dick. The commission oversees OPD, not CHP.

The commission’s real, direct power, firing the chief of police under 604(b)(5), was used as recently as late February. But the commission didn’t actually go there alone. The mayor, who nominates a chunk of police commissioners, joined in, so they could fire “without cause”. They’re being sued about it.

I believe it was community comments that broached the matter of the week’s coming city council meeting, where an amendment to the measure setting the police commission’s authority will be on the agenda. From the city council’s point of view, I don’t suppose it hurts to have a bunch of very angry voters, looking to be heard in city government, vented off and just plain worn out by a four-plus-hour commission session the night before.

I will be profoundly disappointed if the upshots of the coming council meeting boil down to further dolling the police commission up as the body responsible for the reforms Oakland residents are clamoring for, rather than the council itself. Much has been made of the optics of the police commission. One of the commissioners himself alluded to, mentioning some outsider assessments that the Oakland police commission is the strongest in the country. Not in an approving way, mind you, but to stress the wide gap between appearance and reality. Exactly the gap that led countless citizens to phone into the commission to demand what it can’t do.

The commission helps to set policy, but the department evidently does not follow that policy when the going gets rough, or when the department unilaterally decides that it should. If I sat on the commission and found myself billed as the source of solutions I cannot deliver, or propped up as a kind of political buffer between the anger on the streets and the city council, I’d seriously consider coordinating among commissioners to resign in protest. If the commission operates as a sham—and that is as much about public perception as reality—the curtain should come down. I am not yet sure that’s the case, but it’s occurred to me only as a consequence of attending the hearing, not before.

I’ll admit this overall view accords with a broader impression I’ve been taking from reading, research, and conversations on this issue over the past week. Lots of great research has been done, largely from on high at great technocratic remove, focused on police violence and policy nationwide. For example, I was recently impressed by Campaign Zero’s systematic coding and comparison of individual features of union contracts and force policies, cross-correlated to violent incidents. That is a lot of specialized work. But as much as the resulting reform platform gathers steam by stressing its “data-driven” nature, I’ve yet to see strong theories of efficacy, clear cases for causation rather than correlation, or compelling arguments that terms cause better police departments, rather than the other way around.

Oakland is in many ways a confounder. As the deputy chief was quick to point out, slates of boxes to tick, like “8 Can’t Wait”, have largely been ticked in Oakland. As scandal after lawsuit after police chief firing piled on, one after another, the city seems to have done just about anything credible it could think of, on paper and even in processes, like training. I’ve seen a few commentators put Oakland in the running for model guinea pig of the 21st Century Policing Task Force under the Obama administration, until the child sex scandal. There have been some quantifiable improvements over the last few years, including in fatal shootings. But other shames have piled on, more or less at perceived pace.

Suffice to say, neither I nor the locals I’ve spoken to have any doubt that a man like George Floyd could have been murdered, just so, right here in Oakland. With Erik Salgado dead almost exactly a week after protests began, albeit by the guns of state rather than city police, any doubt that theoretically might have lingered has wafted off. Those who believe, or want to believe, that policy determines behavior might like to see the commission strengthened, more specific no-nos like strangulation holds and tear gas banned by policy, and so on. They will argue that reforms don’t work immediately, but take time.

Those imminently afraid of being bullied, gassed, arrested for petty offenses, abused in Santa Rita jail, or snuffed out in the street will not be content to wait, log their sufferings, and report back to criminal justice professors. They’re no more interested in playing lab rat than beaten dog.

As with my notes on the protest one week ago, the experience of the commission hearing was thoroughly seasoned with small details, offhand facts and phrases, salty, burning vignettes, and sour revelations. I feel a certain amateur-journalistic failure in running out of writing steam to catalog them all. But they are coming too fast and too heavy.

The better I know Oakland, the less I feel up to introducing her.

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